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Scott M. Paton

Organizational Identity

Maximizing the value of your company’s brand name starts with you.


What makes Starbucks Starbucks? What makes Southwest Airlines Southwest Airlines? What makes McDonald’s McDonald’s? In other words, what makes these organizations unique? What is it about them that makes you instantly recognize the Starbucks, Southwest, or McDonald’s experience? Is it the people, the furnishings, the smell, the consistency?

All three of these organizations and millions of others, including yours, have a unique organizational identity. It’s determined by how their customers, employees, suppliers, and other stakeholders perceive them. And, believe it or not, as a quality professional, you play a vital role in shaping your organization’s identity.

The essence of an organization is more than just its logo, product, policies, procedures, and people. It’s the sum of all of these and more. Sure, Starbucks brews a great cup of coffee and it has nice-looking stores, but Starbucks is more than just that. The Starbucks experience is also about the consistency of its products, its training, and its attention to detail (e.g., the music it plays in the stores). The perception is of a great cup of coffee served in a relaxing, hip environment.

The same can be said of McDonald’s. It’s more than just hamburgers that make McDonald’s McDonald’s. It’s the consistency of the product, the training of its managers and owners, and its attention to its different consumer bases (e.g., kids). McDonald’s isn’t fancy or expensive or exciting, but it is successful. The perception is one of quick, inexpensive, and consistent food that my kids will actually eat. They’ve also made great strides in adding more healthy selections to their menu (e.g., salads).

Southwest occupies a unique position among U.S. airlines: It makes money. Not only that, it consistently ranks No. 1 in the American Customer Satisfaction Index among U.S. airlines. It certainly isn’t because of luxurious aircraft; it only flies boring old 737s. Nor is it because of designer uniforms on its flight attendants; they wear polo shirts and khakis. No fancy meals, just peanuts. Southwest knows its market, and it doesn’t try to be something that it isn’t. Not only that, Southwest’s employees know that their jobs aren’t just handing out boarding passes or peanuts. They are there to make sure that their passengers’ flights are safe, on time, fun, and hassle-free. The perception is good value for the money.

It doesn’t matter if you like Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Southwest Airlines. I’m using them as examples of organizations that have a well-defined identity in the marketplace. Your organization also has an identity in the market. The question is, is it the one that you, management, and/or shareholders want it to have? More to the point, what can you do about it?

An organization’s perception in the market can make or break it. Identity is a very difficult beast to nurture and tame, and difficult to change. Remember all the organizations that tried to change their identities over the years? The list includes Montgomery Ward, Eastern Airlines, and Pan Am, just to name a few. These once-great companies could never figure out how to change the consumer’s perception of them and they failed.

This isn’t to say that organizations can’t change their identity for the better. We all know what sterling reputations Toyota and Honda have now, but they once were viewed as purveyors of cheap and shoddy vehicles.

An organization’s identity isn’t just determined by its customers’ perception. Employees and vendors determine it, too. How do you feel about going to work? Are you proud of what your organization does? Do your co-workers share your feelings? Is there a uniform employee perception across the organization?

As a quality professional, you can do more than just your part in ensuring product and service quality. You can evangelize about quality and customer service and safety and training and a whole host of other factors that affect your organization’s identity.

You have input into the kind of training that your organization’s employees need, what processes need improvement, and continual feedback from your customers on how well you are doing. You also have tools, such as your quality management system, that allow you to define what kind of organization you want and give you a road map for getting there.

It’s no secret that we are in a volatile economy right now. Taking a hard look at your organization may give you valuable insight into your future with it. What kind of organization do you work for? How do employees, vendors, and customers perceive your organization? Do you have the ability to make a difference? Ask yourself these questions. The answers may surprise you.

Share your thoughts on organizational identity, what your organization does to manage its perception in the market, and what role you play in it at www.qualitycurmudgeon.com.

About the author
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large.